May 3 - 9, 2015: Issue 212

 Sister Lourdes, Mana Lou

 Sister Lourdes, Mana Lou 

by Tamara Sloper Harding

Renowned activist Nun from Timor Leste - Mana Lou, Sister Lourdes - Speaks at the Rotary Club of Pittwater 20 May‏

We have a very exciting guest speaker coming to Pittwater on 20 May! Sister Lourdes, Mana Lou, is visiting Australia to talk about Timor Leste and the work of her organisation in moving forward after the struggle for Independence.

Sister Lourdes,  Mana Lou – Part One

Rarely are we privileged enough to meet at true hero, a person whose positive influence is evident in the world and someone who inspires you to take up the challenge of social justice. I have been blessed with the opportunity to get to know East Timor’s Sister Lourdes. I first met her in 1999 when she was instrumental in coordinating reconciliation between pro Indonesia militia groups and pro Independence East Timorese. Father George, Kathy Gee and I visited her in Timor last year and were fortunate enough to see her again recently with Mark Ferguson and Jane Mulroney of Pittwater Council. Sister Lourdes is an invaluable source of advice in the development of our relationship with the village of Soibada. Over the next few weeks I will share some of her remarkable story with you.

Sister Lourdes, or Mana Lou as she is affectionately known, is a radical Catholic nun and a hero of East Timor’s revolution. She is a charismatic dynamo who is regularly consulted by the political leadership for advice. She is a highly respected leader of society – a unique position for a woman in traditional Timor. She’s been called the Mother Theresa of East Timor. Yet she has also been likened to Joan of Arc. She did not taken up arms for a military fight but is a leader in a nonviolent struggle to assist the Timorese to regain a sense of their own dignity and identity.

When Sister Lourdes, then known as Maria Lourdes Martins Cruz, was 11 years old the Indonesians invaded East Timor. This was only 9 days after Portugal had given the tiny nation independence. During the next 24 years of military occupation over 200,000 East Timorese, almost a third of the population lost their lives.

One of seven children, four girls and three boys, the young Maria came from a reasonably well off family. Her parents owned a coffee plantation in Dare in the hills outside Dili. It is a beautiful place with magnificent views down to Dili Harbour and Christo Rei. All the children went to school until it was closed by the Indonesians. Maria found refuge in the local church and accompanied the parish priest on his rounds. As a child she walked the mountain paths to local villages. She witnessed the deprivation and poverty experienced by the majority of the East Timorese. She became aware of her own ability to assist, sustain and educate them.

She impressed the local Bishop, and he encouraged her to continue her studies. She became a novice with the Canossian Daughters of Charity. However, she felt dislocated from her true calling of assisting the poor whilst living in the convent. Life there was too different from that of ordinary people. She also felt that the Church’s hierarchical structure restricted the potential of women. In 1985 she went to study theology at a Jesuit Institute on Java, Indonesia. On her return home Sister Lourdes established her own religious order which she called “Brothers and Sisters in Christ” and began to act on her ideas. She saw her mission as “preparing the ground for a new Timor”. The purpose of her order is to work alongside the poor, demonstrating that the

On her family’s coffee estate Sister Lourdes built a training institute to educate girls, two orphanages, boarding houses and a home for the sick. Work is shared equally and the community is completely self sufficient. They raise livestock and grow crops, even flowers to sell at the market. This model of equality and self-sufficiency is what Mana Lou advocates for Timor as a whole. The young people who have joined her community do not wear religious habit and they live in the same simplicity as local people. 

In a country still traumatized by the past Sister Lourdes wants people to take control of their own situation. She said, “If we see the roads need to be fixed we can’t just stand there and look at it and expect others to fix it. If farms need to be worked then we go and help people to do that. We want to be an example with the work that we’re doing. Not by just teaching or talking, but by putting our words into action. “To take the new Timor forward.” She is adamant that any change in Timor will have to be initiated from within, using the resources available to create sustainable improvements, rather than superficial solutions imposed from outside.

In this process of education for liberation, she has said, “Our arms are peace, love, justice, truth, freedom, forgiveness, unity and solidarity.”

In 1997 she was a recipient of Pax Christi’s International Peace Prize. In December 2009 she was awarded the Sergio Vieira De Mello Human Rights Award for promoting social, economic and cultural rights by President Jose Ramos-Horta.

Sister Lourdes,  Mana Lou – Part Two

During the Indonesian occupation of Timor Leste the Catholic Church became “the people’s church”. To be Catholic became a symbol of Timorese identity. Priests and Nuns spoke out about human rights abuses. They risked their own lives. The Timorese lost their own identity, their indigenous culture and their spirituality during this time.

Sister Lourdes, Mana Lou, is now 48 years old. A dynamic, vocal and independent-minded woman, she provides a new model of religious leadership and service for the Church. She has dedicated her life to “changing the plight of the poor by working on the roots of the problems”. Sister Lourdes feels that God asked her to look after the “underdogs”. Now her focus is on empowering the poor to become truly "independent" by developing cottage industries, handicrafts, and agriculture, as well as spiritual growth. One of her goals is to preserve local languages and culture. She collects traditional music, and is an expert in traditional food and medicine. In a demonstration of Christ's love she reaches out to the areas other groups do not venture. She gathers communities in the search for solidarity, faith and resource maximization. She has established more than 10 houses across the country, and health clinics and a hospice for tuberculosis patients and one for children with disabilities. 

Sister Lourdes considers that the children are the real future of East Timor. She believes Timor Leste needs more than education to overcome its challenges. Its people need to be prepared to do hard work and take the initiative. She is concerned that some Timorese people live with an “occupation mentality”. That is, they are so used to not being in control of their own lives and society, and then becoming the recipients of charity, that they do not have the drive to attempt to rectify the situation for themselves. This has resulted in a noticeable lack of leadership skills. Another goal is to build leadership among the youth. Her bigger vision is a self-sufficient country that does not rely on charity. Her crusade to help the poor has put her at odds with her country’s invaders, her church and at times even her own people. Although it has the official blessing of the Bishop, the Institute receives no official funding from the Catholic Church. It relies on income generated from crops grown, cottage industry and any donations received.

The structure of her “Institute”, Brothers and Sisters in Christ, is unique. There is no rank and little bureaucracy. Sister Lourdes personally oversees the day to day management with the assistant of a secretary. She welcomes people of any denomination, who share her vision to join the community. However, if they are Catholic and are called by God they are eligible to become a “member”. This entails a commitment of five years of training. The members are educated to be a source of inspiration to the people. They are trained intellectually and in hygiene, social and economic skills, cultural activities and spiritual formation. They undertake outreach work with the poor in villages across Timor Leste. After completing this training they take holy vows, including one of chastity. The latter is to ensure that they can be “mother, father, brother, sister or child to anyone of God’s people.”

Sister Lourdes is trying to spread the work they do at Dare into the most remote and poorest villagers of East Timor. She even has dreams of taking her work to other poverty stricken countries. She is not limiting her scope to Timor alone. She considers it her responsibility to share her faith, to educate, and to train. She hopes that one day it will be “like a candle that lights up and illuminates the land not only for the church in Timor but for the world”. When we spoke with her about her plans she even included work in Australian Indigenous communities and work in Africa amongst her future goals.

Sister Lourdes’ father was happy for her to spend her time with the priests when she was young so that she could develop a stronger spirituality. This association also provided a safe haven for her and she was sent to the convent for protection. Young girls were often kidnapped during this time. It was then expected that she would become a nun. Although she left the Convent her faith was strong and she knew her true calling was to work “hands on” amongst the poor. 

For a time, Religious were considered untouchable and “bullet-proof”. This changed dramatically in September, 1999, during the violence following the vote for independence. Refugees sheltering in churches, and the nuns and priests protecting them, were brutally massacred. Sister Lourdes barely escaped with her life as the military and their militias killed two of the younger women she worked with. 

Thousands of people fled the cities to hide in the mountains and countryside. While the country burned the farm at Dare became a sanctuary for children and the dispossessed. Sister Lourdes and the candidates of her institute cared for at least 15,000 people. She fed them, clothed them, card for the sick. Her love for the children gave them hope, and the chance for a new life. Amidst the disaster that was Timor Leste in 1999 she made time to play, sing and just “be” with the children. She showed them the Grace of God in their shattered lives. In September 1999 I visited Sister Lourdes and the children at Dare many times. I delivered many packages sent from you here in Pittwater. There was food, clothing for the children, hand knitted teddies and other toys. To see the joy on the orphans’ faces as Sister Lourdes taught them to use a skipping rope, or play with a toy, was evidence of the impact of such small things in their lives. For a moment they were distracted from the atrocities they had witnessed.

International Force for East Timor (INTERFET) was a multinational non-United Nations peacekeeping taskforce, organised and led by Australia in accordance with United Nations resolutions to address the humanitarian and security crisis which took place in East Timor from 1999–2000 until the arrival of UN peacekeepers. INTERFET was commanded by Australia's Major General Peter Cosgrove.

Mana Lou believes that her ability to care for these people was a miracle from God. There was no clean water and very little food. Yet somehow she always managed to scrape together enough to get by.

The Institute has developed tremendously since that time. There is now guest accommodation in Dare for up to forty people. Designed and built by Sister Lourdes and her members, at $20 US a day, it is a perfect place for retreats and courses. With our assistance Sister Lourdes may be able to extend her outreach programs to the poor in Soibada. 

Sister Lourdes,  Mana Lou – Part Three

East Timor is a free country now. However, she is not yet free from the struggle against poverty. Sister Lourdes, Mana Lou, leads in the fight against poverty just as she led her people in the quest for Independence. She applied liberation theology, which evolved in Latin America, to the situation in Timor Leste. (During her studies she wrote a dissertation on this.) The majority of people supported armed resistance yet she worked with the militia, the refugees and the resistance.

Sister Lourdes invoked criticism from many for reaching out to those who were hostile towards the East Timorese people. Often quoting Jesus, who said, “Love your enemy”, Sister Lourdes shared the Gospel with the militia who had committed treacherous crimes. Although they tried to intimidate her she gave them love and faith. She attempted to orchestrate reconciliation by engaging the Indonesian troops camped in Dare. She treated them with love, and neighbourly concern. She looked on them as young men, lonely and away from home. She celebrated their birthdays with them, included them in daily life, and they got to know her and respect her. She risked her life countless times travelling all over Timor to visit refugee camps often in remote and dangerous areas. She visited the militia camps in West Timor to assist the refugees and to try and convince them to return to their villages. As leaders fled after massacres she would continue through road blocks with provision for those left behind. She has an uncanny ability to communicate and often won over the militia with prayers and laughter. She always kept a spiritual element in her speech and confronted them with faith.

Sister Lourdes tells of miracles that occur on an almost daily basis. One barrel of rice lasted for three weeks whilst she fed thousands of hungry refugees. It ran out the day the United Nations arrived. She credits God with placing people in her path, the right people, to help her in her effort to win the battle against poverty and oppression. 

Her tremendous influence and the respect she invokes belies the small size of her organization, Brothers and Sisters in Christ. She aims to demonstrate the Gospel by working alongside the poor. The institute serves the community, both with urgently needed humanitarian assistance, and with longer term projects to fight poverty and revive and preserve East Timorese culture. Her next project is to train her candidates to deal with the mental health issues that are rife in the villages. Post traumatic stress disorder is a common legacy of battles such as East Timor’s. There would not be a family in Timor Leste unaffected by loss and violence. Sister Lourdes plans to send educated mental health workers out to the villages not just to assist the needy but also to train others in dealing with these issues. 

Often described as a “Living Saint” Mana Lou has overcome countless obstacles, from the Church, from her people, from the militia and from the Indonesians. Her faith in God and what He has called her to do gives her strength.

This courageous woman is an example to us all of forgiveness, love, understanding and trust and of what one person with a vision can achieve.


Please RSVP to Gail Carew by email: or 9417 228 294 by May 15th

Article by Tamara Sloper Harding, 2015.